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What Is the Art of Slow Comedy?

This summer I taught two sold-out weekends of my Art of Slow Comedy intensives, and after the first two-day intensive, one my students from Denmark asked me: “What is the Art of Slow Comedy?”

That is hard question to answer since I have evolved and so has my teaching. After I explained it, he said, “You should have said that at the beginning of the workshop. It would have been a lot more helpful.”

He was right. Believe me, I am not beyond learning from my students. So guess what? The next weekend, I explained my philosophy at the start of the workshop.

So what is my teaching philosophy in the Art of Slow Comedy? It is very simple: I want my students to start learning to be believable on stage. It’s the thing that separates a good improviser from a great one. It’s a superpower that will make you stand out from the rest.

All of the great improvisers I have either worked with or watched have had one thing in common: You believe every word that comes out their mouths. Whether they are playing some big character or an aspect of themselves, we believe them. Some would call this acting. That’s why I teach a hybrid of acting and improv.

I often say that you need to be real before you can be funny, and I truly believe this is the case. Now, I know some improvisers are brilliant with being clever and witty, and for the 10 percent of you who can pull this off, you have my support. For the rest of us, if we commit to being believable to the relationship and scene we are in, we can transform improv into to theater. Yes, it sounds pretentious, but it happens.

One way to be more believable in your improv, you have to emotionally react to your scene partner. This will not only give you some more life on stage, but it will also give you an opportunity to develop a point of view for your character. If your scene partner is playing your mom and she says that she’s going to come stay with you, you can be excited, or pissed off, or scared. I don’t care what your reaction is, but the point is you have to have an emotional response to the information that given by your partner. My students always make the same discovery when working this way. They realize that by putting the emotions first, the words comes easily. They sound natural and real, and yes, most of the time they find the funny, but only after focusing on the emotions

Another way to become more believable in your improv is to talk like a real person would speak in real life. We do this by slowing down, shutting up, and responding to last thing our partner said. The slowing down part comes in the listening. Ask yourself, what is my partner really saying to me and how are they saying it? If they are saying, “I love you,” are they saying it sarcastically or do they mean it? By shutting up, we stop rambling and create a space for our partner to respond. In theory, it should work like this: You say a line and then you don’t speak again until your partner responds. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and scary, but when you start doing this, you can very organically start building off the last thing your partner said. You can start making discoveries by making assumptions about the characters’ relationship, history and situation.

When we work this way, specifics come easily, dialogue is natural. We start to surprise ourselves and our partners and our improv become spontaneous, easy, and guess what? Even fun.

Want to become more believable on stage? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Sept. 14! Sign up by Sept. 1 to snag the Early Bird discount. Register today!

Improv Nerd is Making Waves in the Press!

There’s been some buzz about Improv Nerd and The Art of Slow Comedy classes in the press lately as our fall season starts up this Sunday. Here’s what people have been saying:

Here are a few of our favorite throwback mentions in the press:

Seen any Improv Nerd shoutouts lately? Share the love below!

3 Exercises to Help You Start Your Scenes in the Middle

How many times have you started a scene by saying, “How are you doing?” or “What are you up to?” If you’ve done that, you know that the scene goes absolutely nowhere. If you have a good teacher, director, or coach, he or she will usually say, “You need to start your scenes in the middle.” You may look at them glassy-eyed, not quite understanding the concept or how it applies to your improv. This is very common. Don’t panic.

The goal of starting your scenes in the middle is to get into the action that happens after the formalities of “Hi, what’s up?” and begin with a strong statement that addresses what’s going on in the relationship. More along the lines of: “I can’t believe you just asked me out at work.” Or: “Your mother found this pot in your bedroom.”

I can tell you that I’ve been saying, “You need to start your scenes in the middle” for so many years that I’m forgetting what it means myself. So I’m writing this blog for the both of us.

Lately, I’ve seen students in my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes struggle with this issue, and instead of trying to explain this piece of improv theory (which only leads to more confusion), I have found it much more helpful to give them an exercise to practice it. So, I will do the same for you and give you three exercises that’ll help you start your scenes in the middle. I’ve found these exercises to be very simple and effective, and players have a lot of fun doing them.

1. Read Your Partner

Have two players come out and face each other in silence for a couple of seconds. Then ask each player to say what emotion they’re getting off the other player. Primary emotions — such as happy, sad, anger, fear, or a variation of these — work best.

Once the players have named the emotion, ask them what their relationship is to each other. Then ask them, “What just happened in your relationship?”

The emotions will lead the scene. For instance, if two players say that one looks sad and the other looks afraid, and they determine that they are mother and daughter, they can do a scene where the mother is sad and the daughter is afraid because the mother just found pot in the daughter’s room.

I let the players do this multiple times to build this muscle. For more advanced players, I let them start by naming the emotions, relationship and what just happened, and then go into a scene one line at a time.

2. 60, 45, 30, 15, 10 Second

This is a great exercise that helps players instinctively discover for themselves where the middle of the scene is. Get two players up to do a 60-second, two-person scene. Then they will repeat the scene in 45 seconds, then in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, and then 10 seconds. By incrementally decreasing the time of the scene, players are forced to get to the meat of the scene quickly.

3. Name Repetition

Two players come out and name each others’ characters in the scene. Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred… They keep repeating this until one of the players feels that it’s time to speak with an opening line. “Fred, I can’t believe you showed up for my graduation! I thought you were going to be in Hawaii.”

Once the opening line is spoken, one of the players then drops the repetition and goes into the scene. What’s great about this exercise is it helps the players build tension in the scene, which typically leads to a strong opening line.

Do you have any games or exercises that you use to help you start in the middle of a scene? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to register for one of my two upcoming Summer Intensives if you want to learn more about how to start your scenes in the middle — spots are filling quickly!

There is no blog this week

This week there is no blog. I am taking the week off. I am exhausted. I have been traveling across the country teaching Art of Slow Comedy improv workshops and doing live Improv Nerd shows.

Trust me, I’m not complaining, I am grateful. Never have I been so in demand. Sure, I could sit down right now and squeeze out a blog on the computer, but if I did that, I would have a resentment. A big, juicy resentment. And I’ve learned that if I’m going to have a resentment doing something, it’s better to not do it.

Resentments make me think crazy thoughts like, “Why am I even writing this blog that I am not getting paid for? Nobody appreciates all the hard work I do. It doesn’t fill up my classes fast enough, anyway. I am wasting my time. So, fuck it. Let’s blow the place up and quit writing this fucking blog.”

I am not going to do that. I am going to do something different, because I value our relationship too much. I enjoy writing this blog too much. In fact, I have built something pretty nice here. So if you have not heard already, I will tell you now — this week there will be no blog, and no apologies to you or to myself. It’s OK. I need to recharge the batteries, because I have a big week coming up in Austin at The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, where I will be teaching and doing four live Improv Nerd shows, and hopefully, when I return next week, I will feel invigorated and inspired because I took the whole week off and did not write this blog.

That is how it works. It’s called self-care, and that is what I am doing by not writing a blog this week: Self-care. Remember those words, and the example I have set for you. In my improv classes I often tell my students: “Show, don’t tell.” That is what I am going to do right now. So, instead of telling you that I am not going to write a blog this week, I will show you.

See?

I am sitting on the couch not writing. I feel great.  I am looking out the window, and am thinking how nice it is to take some time off from writing. Why did I not do this sooner? You know what’s interesting when you take a break and don’t write a blog? You have time to put your feet up and relax. I am putting my feet up on the coffee table. I didn’t even know why we had this coffee table in the first place. Now I know it’s to put your feet up on it. See, that’s the kind of discovery you make when you decide not to write a blog.

I wonder if you’ll miss me if I don’t write a blog this week? I hope you do, actually, but no matter how much you please with me, I’m not going to do it. Just think of how excited you’ll be when you get my blog next week, after a whole week off. 

There are still a few spots left in Jimmy’s next Intermediate Level classes, starting Sept. 8 and Sept. 13. New this term — the Intermediate Class will include a performance on Oct. 18. Sign up today!

How to Have Better Bad Shows

Is your goal in improv to never have a bad show, scene, class or rehearsal? If so you are doomed. Get out while you can.

Improvising is not an exact science. You are never going to master it. That’s why some of us are in it for life.

What you need to be striving for is always challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone. That’s where the learning will be the fastest.

How will you know you are outside your comfort zone, you ask? You will feel uncomfortable, frustrated and out of control.

I have seen this hundreds of times: A student or even a whole class leaves a class frustrated, feeling like they’re not very good and never going to “get it,” and then they show up the next week and they’re different, like they’ve passed a kidney stone, and they knock it out of the park. What happens between classes, I don’t know, but I think it’s the classes where they feel frustrated are actually the ones where they’re learning the most.

I saw it last night in my Art of Slow Comedy class. A couple of my students were really brave and shared with the class the frustrations they were having with their improvising. One guy thought he was not getting it, and another woman said she was more comfortable with more structure. Both were frustrated.

I am proud they spoke up. It takes courage to not sit on your feelings and instead put a voice to them, and if they knew it or not, the students were helping the class tremendously. The class gave them feedback, although sometimes students don’t even need feedback, they just need to speak about how they’re feeling.

I shared with the class that I have done a thousand bad scenes to get where I am today, and you know what? I still have thousands of bad shows left in me. That is humbling and discouraging at the same time. For me it is a fact. I’ve performed with a lot of groups over the years and we have had good shows and bad shows. The better the team, the fewer bad shows we had, but we still had bad shows.

I was on Carl and The Passions at IO-Chicago with some of the best improvisers around, and we had a running joke that when Shad Kunkle, Bill Boehler and I would come out and do a scene together, it would go nowhere. We called it the Bermuda Triangle of Improv. You would think with the years that we all had been doing it, we would be killing it every night. Not true. Yes, we had killer shows, shows that were so great you had a high for days afterwards, but we still had bad shows, bad rehearsals and bad scenes.

I believe it was Mick Napier who said that the goal of improv is not to be perfect, it’s just to increase your percentage of your success rate. Nobody is going to have a 100 percent success rate. Nobody is going to be the perfect improviser. It’s like saying you’re going to 1000% percent hitter in baseball. It’s never happened because the game isn’t designed that way. Same with improvising.

So save yourself some time and misery and accept the bad shows, rehearsals and classes as part of the process. Nobody understands the pain of that more than I do. I’ve written about how I often want to kill myself after a bad show. That has not changed. But in my despair, I try to remember “If you want to do something well, you need to do it poorly first.”

So if you’re goal has always been to perfect improv, my suggestion is to throw that out and get a new goal. If you want to, you can use mine: To have better bad shows.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy class start June 2. Hurry! Early Bird Pricing ends May 19. Register today.

Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives

Hey, improvisers! Are you planning to come into Chicago for an improv summer intensive at iO, Second City or the Annoyance? If so, make your summer even more memorable by signing up for one of Jimmy Carrane’s exclusive Art of Slow Comedy One-Day Intensives!

Held at Stage 773 on either Sunday, July 6 or Sunday, July 20, these four-hour improv summer intensives are a great introduction to Jimmy’s unique Art of Slow Comedy Method. In this intensive, you’ll learn how to slow down your scene work so you can get to the game faster, play it real and grounded, have an emotional life on stage, and react honestly to your partner.

Class requires instructor approval to register, and each workshop is limited to 14 students. For instructor approval, please email your experience to jimcarrane@gmail.com.

The Art of Slow Comedy One-Day Intensives are $99, but you can register for only $79 if you sign up before June 15 for the July 6 workshop and by June 29 for the July 20 workshop. Register today!

Glued to the Back Line in Improv Scenes

We have all been that person stuck on the back line during an improv show terrified to step out and do a scene. We stand there, unable to move our bodies. We’re paralyzed, convinced we have been crazy-glued to the back wall, and we only become unstuck when the show is over.

Sometimes we are lucky and the Improv Gods smile on us, and one of our noble teammates peels us off the back wall, throwing us into a scene, like a lobster into a boiling pot of water.

But the question is, is it helpful to pull a reluctant teammate into a scene or is this co-dependent?

In one of my recent Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv classes, one of the students was grabbing people who were stuck on the back line and doing scenes with them. Then later, we had a thoughtful discussion about whether that was a good idea or not.

So I called my friend, Dan Bakkedahl, a master improviser and wonderful actor, and someone I admire very much, and asked his thoughts. Dan said a cast member, Jim Zulivic, pulled him into a scene when he was playing his first improv set on Second City’s Main Stage.

“(I thought), Oh my God, what is he doing?” Dan said. “Even though I was frightened, he did me a big favor.”

Dan then went on to tell me about a Harold team that he was on where they were encouraged to pull people into improv scenes if they were hanging back on the back line. After a while the team stopped that because it wasn’t working for the team anymore.

I was always very appreciative when people pulled me into improv scenes when I was starting out, and I like to pull others in as well. But I am also super co-dependent, and when you spend too much time focusing on others, you ruin your chance of getting better yourself. Improv is about give and take. Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in your group, you also don’t want to always take on the role of the rescuer.

In class, a student asked me how I changed from being scared and standing on the back wall to getting out into improv scenes. For me, I started jumping into scenes when I got sick and tired of not getting out there. It was the pain of feeling shitty after the show that gave me the courage to change, and you don’t ever want to take that away from someone, because I needed to bottom out on that to get where I am today.

So, ultimately, how you decide whether to pull someone into a scene or let them sweat it out on the back line is all about balance. Sometimes we have to help our teammates, and sometimes we need to let them help themselves. Good luck experimenting and finding the balance that works for you. I would love to get your thoughts on this subject, so please let me know.

Using your negative energy

I love my Monday night Art of Slow Comedy improv class and I am going to miss them. They have taught me so much and last night was no exception.

In this level, we typically warm up with a series of two-person scenes. This week, after they finished, I asked the class, “How did you feel about what you just did?”

One of my students came unhinged and got emotional, to the point of tears. “I am frustrated. I’m not getting it!” she said. “I’m not good at improv. I don’t feel safe in this class, and I don’t want to expose people to my negative energy.”

She was trembling, raw and vulnerable, and was worried that her negative energy was contagious and everyone else was going to catch it. The class was silent and we all just listened. When she was finished, I didn’t try to talk her out of her experience or make it all go away. Instead, I said, “OK, I want you to use that frustration, that the negative energy, in every scene.”

So she did six scenes in row with different people, using her frustration and that  “negative energy” she wanted so desperately to hide from her classmates. Holy shit, what scenes they all came up with! She was a live wire, an open wound, and each student reacted to her differently — some compassionately, some sarcastically, but all vulnerably and really real.

It was one of those nights when the students collectively reached a higher level together, and the students were saying and doing things I never thought possible. It was as if their hearts had been opened up to her and she did the same.

Afterwards, people talked about how free they felt and how easy it was to improvise. When I asked them what they had learned that night, one student piped up and said: “We can use what we got. I need to remember that.”

And so do I. They had re-taught me a lesson I had forgotten, a lesson I use in my own work. Whatever feeling you are having — whether you’re scared or frustrated or sad or tentative — use it in your scene work and let it embody your character.

I first learned this lesson back in 1992 when I was in the original cast of Armando at IO-Chicago. Let me tell you, I was scared to death to be part of that show. I was intimated by the A-list improvisers who were part of that show. I am not kidding you, the first six months I must have played someone who was scared in every scene because that was what my natural state was. Instead of trying to fight my feelings, I just embraced them, and it really worked.

Often times, improvisers will try to override their so-called “negative” emotions of fear, sadness, and anger with that bullshit, pumped-up, fake improviser energy. More skilled improvisers learn how to just accept their negative energy and use it.

What was so cool about Monday night’s class was that it wasn’t just one student who had a breakthrough, the entire class had one. And it all started with one brave student being willing to take a risk and be honest and messy about her “negative energy.”

She was right about one thing. It was contagious and we all caught it, thank god, including the teacher.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? The next Art of Slow Comedy class begins soon! Fundamentals starts Feb. 24 and Advanced starts Feb. 22.

New Art of Slow Comedy Advanced Class Begins Feb. 22

Study with Jimmy Carrane, host of the Improv Nerd podcast, and learn his unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy.

In this advanced-level class, you will find out that creating improv scenes can be as easy as having a conversation. You’ll focus on building solid two-person scenes, exploring a theme and using a variety of energies in a long form. You will also learn how to slow down so you can find the game faster, and how to stop playing so “nicey nice.”

The last day of class will include a long form performance for friends and family at Stage 773. Requires teacher’s approval to register. The class is limited to 10 people.

The class is $279. Take advantage of Early Bird pricing of $249 before Feb. 7!

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